From the Tory-Liberal government’s huge cut in government money for university teaching budgets will follow, for all universities unable to compete in the £9000-fee top end of the market, big cuts in courses; and for all universities, a re-gearing to market criteria.
London Metropolitan University is leading the way by cutting down from 577 courses to 160. Vice Chancellor Malcolm Gillies says that his cuts package is aimed at making the university “lean”, “competitive” and “tightly organised”. The university is being re-invented as a profit-gouging business, whose portfolio of courses will lurch around with the market.
Across the board, spending cuts will be applied strategically, not to trim, but to re-shape universities. In the Tory-Liberal vision, the university will sell itself as offering “good returns” on the “investment” that students make when they take on tens of thousands of pounds of debt, much of it commercial, in order to buy a degree. The new “lean” university will operate like any other cutting-edge capitalist company by busting unions and over-riding “inefficient” practices like internal democracy. University College London is leading the way here, outsourcing cleaning and security jobs in order to smash up the University’s Unison branch.
Students have to re-organise and re-group to win this continuing fight. There has been a lull in activity in recent months after the battles of the winter. Some students have been demoralised by the movement’s failure to stop the abolition of EMA (the small payment made to 16-19 year old students from badly-off families in schools and further education) and the increase in university fees.
But the movement of the winter did win concessions: the limited student support scheme that will replace EMA has been made much more extensive than was originally intended. That movement has activated and politically educated many thousands of school, further education, and university students; it has left behind new student anti-cuts groups in many towns. Those students and groups need to step their activity up a gear and get ready for the battles to come.
The national network that brought together local anti-cuts groups, the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts (NCAFC), has suffered from the lull. It needs to be re-invigorated and re-launched as a campaign with firm democratic structures.
It must become accessible to student activist groups from all over the UK. A “loose network” is not good enough.
When students return from the summer, probably to find management in the process of making cuts and redundancies, our movement needs to hit the ground running. We need a national demonstration. The leadership of the National Union of Students was able to win a vote at NUS conference against holding a national demonstration in the first term, but that vote did not reflect student opinion. Student activists in the NCAFC have launched a campaign to force the NUS leadership to organise a first-term demonstration, and to organise one ourselves if the NUS won’t.
Direct action from students — occupations, sit-ins, demonstrations and more — is needed to win this fight. But students cannot win it alone. The government’s programme for higher education is an attack on trade unions; and it is a component of the overall attack on public services. Trade unionists and students must fight hand-in-hand against the government, Vice Chancellors and education sector vulture-capitalists.
We must structure our campaigns in ways that mutually support one another, we must act in solidarity to defend one another. That means communication and unity between activists on the ground, rather than subordinating student campaigns to the timetables of slow-moving trade union bureaucracies.